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hwnmusiclives's Podcast

Helen Desha Beamer – Grande Dame of Hawai`i

hwnmusiclives's Podcast
Released on Sep 8, 2014

One dictionary defines “grande dame” as “a woman of influential position within a particular sphere.” In the history of Hawaiian culture, one could name many grande dame. Surely Mary Kawena Puku`i, Alice Namakelua, Lena Machado, Genoa Keawe, and Haunani Apoliona come to mind. And then there is Helen Desha Beamer. 

According to Hawaiian music historian George Kanahele in an earlier edition of his seminal work on Hawaiian music, Hawaiian Music and Musicians, the Beamer family of Hawai`i can trace its musical lineage back to the 15th century, and the earliest Beamer compositions can be dated to 1862. But these songs were written by the Beamer women during a period when the religious environment of Hawai`i forced these women to conceal their talents in mele and hula. By the time that Helen was born on September 8, 1881, this puritanical attitude had not yet evolved all that much. So when Helen composed Hawaiian music and taught hula openly, it was against the wishes of both her father and her uncle – the latter a pastor of a church in Hilo. But this trendsetting lady rebelled, and all of Hawai`i is grateful that she did since today she is recognized as one of Hawai`i’s most prolific composers. 

Because she was fluent in the Hawaiian language, Helen’s compositions achieve a poetic style that is rarely found today despite the resurgence in the teaching and every day use of the language. And because Helen was also a very talented singer, her compositions can only be described as “operatic.” Her songs can prove difficult for all but the very finest singers to conquer and perfect the singing of a Helen Desha Beamer composition. She was such a talented singer, in fact, that none other than fellow composer Charles E. King personally chose Helen to make the very first recording of his composition “Ke Kali Nei Au” (often referred to today – mistakenly – as the “Hawaiian Wedding Song,” despite that the original Hawaiian lyric has nothing to do with betrothal whatsoever). 

And although it is not my area of research or expertise by any means, we cannot talk about Hawaiian music without also discussing the hula, and this is particularly true in the case of Beamer who originated what was then – more than 100 years ago – considered a new style of hula – a different kind of footwork that resulted in a smoother, more graceful dance. A century later, that style is now referred to as the characteristic Beamer style of hula – the style you would most often see if you visited Hawai`i or if you were watching the auana (or modern) portion of the Merrie Monarch Hula Festival competition. 

To begin our tribute to “Sweetheart Grandma” (as Auntie Helen was known to her family and friends), here are just a few of Helen’s compositions sung by some of Hawai`i’s most well known and well loved voices – some not heard for a very long time. 

“Keawaiki” (which means “little harbor”) honors the home of Francis Brown on the island of Hawai`i (sometimes erroneously referred to as “the Big Island,” not because it isn’t the largest of the eight major islands, but because this is not the Hawaiian name for this island). The Brown and Beamer families were very good friends, and so Auntie Helen wrote many compositions for this family and for their home and the hospitality the Browns shared. As you will soon hear, many of Helen’s compositions have this honoring quality – songs for her friends, their homes, and special times spent together. “Keawaiki” is still well loved and often sung today – even by those who knew neither the Browns nor the Beamers – because it is a song about being together and sharing good times, good food, good conversation, memories and laughter. And, after all, this is what the Hawaiian life is very much about, so you hear this song sung at such gatherings still today. I said that it takes an exceptional voice to properly sing a Helen Desha Beamer composition, and there are few voices more exceptional than that of Nina Keali`iwahamana who sings for us here. Although many of Nina’s classic recordings have been remastered and re-released in the digital era, her version of “Keawaiki” you hear now remains out of print in any format. 

Ka`ahumanu was the favorite queen of Kamehameha I and the chief minister during his reign. Helen wrote “Ka`ahumanu” in the early 20th century for the Ka`ahumanu Society, the first Hawaiian women’s benevolent association of which she was a charter member of the first chapter. The challenging melody is tackled here by Charles Keonaona Llewellyn Davis (or Charles K.L. Davis or, to those who knew him well, just Charlie) who led a sort of dual life performing Hawaiian music in Hawai`i and opera on the mainland. He combined the two skills for a series of commercially successful records on the Decca label, earning him nationwide exposure. But this performance of “Ka`ahumanu” – with the Kawaiahao Chuch Choir under the direction of its then leader (and, later, senator) Daniel Akaka – comes from an LP recorded in Hawai`i entitled Songs of Hawaiian Royalty. This, too, remains out of print in the digital era. 

Marcella Kalua – with help from The Sons of Hawaii – performs “Kahuli Aku, Kahuli Mai.” The song speaks of the kahuli, or tree snail. One type of this snail – pupukanioe – is legendary in that it is believed it can sing. (Its name means ““shell that sounds long.”) But they are not really singing. The tiny red-striped mountain shells fasten themselves to the bark of a tree and emit a tiny humming sound like that of a mosquito. In this song – which I have seen alternately attributed to Helen and to her granddaughter, Nona, who became a Hawaiian cultural expert in her own right – the kahuli call out to the kolea (or golden plover bird) to fetch them some water. 

Like “Keawaiki,” Auntie Helen wrote “Kimo Hula” to honor her friend Jim “Kimo” Henderson, his wife, Leimakani, and their home in Pi`ihonua near Hilo on the island of Hawai`i. As described by Hawaiian music historian Jean “Kini” Sullivan in her liner notes to Hawaii’s Mahi Beamer, Auntie Helen wrote “Kimo o ka uka `iu`iu” – which means “James of the highlands,” a poetic reference to James’ birthplace of the highlands of Scotland. Because Helen used James’ name in the song, the song is by definition a mele inoa, or “name song.” A mele inoa is not merely a song that honors a person. It also has to reference that person by name. Otherwise it is not a mele inoa. The song is sung here by my dear departed friend Bill Kaiwa with whom I had many lovely chats about Hawaiian music (and his golf handicap). An artist as well as an entertainer, Bill was equally adept with painting as sculpting. (See the cover he painted for his “True Hawaiian” CD.) Uncle Bill carved a poi pounder out of precious milo wood as his personal prize for the winner of the Aloha Festivals Falsetto Contest which he helped judge in 2005. That poi pounder sits beside me on my end table as I write this – bringing my relationship with Uncle Bill full circle, a piece of him always here by my side. 

Next time: More classic compositions from the pen of Helen Desha Beamer performed by some of Hawai`i’s finest – and, perhaps, forgotten – voices…

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